In early November 2014 I took a 5 day trip through Morocco and have to say it had to be one of the most eye opening experiences. Morocco is a country of contrast. From desert heat to mountain snowstorms in the span of a couple hours or its cities that vary from the modern to ancient clay structures. It was definitely one of those trips I won’t ever forget and one that really makes you appreciate everything you have but i’ll get in to that more in a little bit.
Usually when I go somewhere I like to have it extensively planned out first (maybe not all booked but at least an idea of what i’ll be doing, how i’ll be doing it and how i’ll get there). However this trip to Morocco was my first every trip that really deviated from this. Before getting to Morocco all I had booked was the flight in to Marrakesh, my flight leaving Fes 5 days later and the first nights hostel stay. Somehow I had to get across the country to the city of Fes in the next 4 days to catch my outbound flight and spend a night in the Sahara Desert along the way because visiting the Sahara was one of my primary reasons for visiting this country.
It was about 9PM when my plane landed at the Marrakesh Menara airport. I don’t usually like to arrive in new countries (especially being in Africa) at night but such is the way things work out sometimes. I grabbed a taxi to the city center, the Jemaa el-Fnaa square where even at nearly 10pm at night this place was a hive of activity! There were street vendors, street performers and crowds galore all having a great time and just enjoying themselves. I made my way off a side street from the square to my hostel, Amour d’ Auberge, which was only a couple minutes walk away. The hostel was nothing special but they had wifi, power outlets, hot showers and a clean bed to sleep on and for a mere $8/night I really couldn’t complain. After checking in I went out, grabbed some chicken tagine for dinner (tagine is a very popular food in Morocco and very delicious made of mostly potatoes and spices) and headed back to the hostel for some shut eye.
The next morning I woke early around 5:30AM and headed out. I knew I needed to get on one of the three day Sahara Desert tours TODAY if I was going to make it to Fes in time for my flight. I had done some more research the night before at the hostel on places to visit in Morocco and started to think i’d be better off renting a car and driving myself across the country that way I could stop at more sights along the way. And besides, I am not a big fan of the organized tours anyways. I like doing my own thing when I want and on my own timeline.
I didn’t know much about the local car rental situation so I went back to the airport knowing that I could rent a car from there and drop it off at the airport in Fes rather than having to bring it back to Marrakesh. I got to the airport around 7AM but most rental agencies didn’t open until 7:30. So I waited. When they did open it turned out that most rental companies were sold out of cars at the moment and the cars they did have remaining were manual. I have never driven manual and Morocco is not the place i’d want to learn. For those who have not been, the roadways (at least in the city) are crazy with seemingly no road rules. Disappointed I headed back to my hostel to see if they could book me on a tour since they, too, offer tour bookings.
Arriving back at the hostel at about 8AM it turned out that the 3 day tour that the hostel books had already departed for the day at about 7:30. But not to fear, for a small fee (more like a bribe) the hostel owner called a couple of friends to see what they could do. A couple minutes later there was a knock on the door and a man outside who told me to come with him. A little uneasy, but trusting of the hostel owner, I followed. We ran around many streets trying to find another tour that I could join. The man walked in to a gas station, opened the door of a white tour van that was filling up and getting ready to leave and told me to get in. There was one empty seat inside. A little uneasy again, I looked inside and saw the van filled with tourists like myself. Feeling better I climbed inside, being told this was the 3 day Sahara tour and we were on our way.
While I barely spent any time in Marrakesh, some of the things i’d check out if I had more time are:
During the next couple hours of driving I struck up a conversation with a woman sitting beside me. She was in her 50s and surprisingly she was a techie like myself having worked for big tech companies like Cisco and Microsoft all while travelling the world and who has now settled down in Europe with her children. During our talk she mentioned that this was the 2 day one night tour, not the 3 day two night tour like I had been told. Uh-oh!!
After leaving Marrakesh we spent the next couple hours traversing the narrow and hairpin roads of Morocco’s Atlas mountains. The views were incredible!! Our first stop came at Tizi n’Tichka where we had a nice viewpoint and a quick bathroom/coffee break. At this point I asked the van driver about how I was told this was the 3 day tour not the 2 day and he reassured me telling me that we will be catching up to the three day tour along the way and at that point I would be transferring to their tour group. Whew! All was good now.
We made our way further along the road making our next stop outside the city of Ouarzazate at the ancient city of Ksar Ait Benhaddou. This Unesco World Heritage site is unbelievable in its own regard. An entire city made from clay. It is also the location of many films and TV shows such as Game of Thrones, Gladiator and Prince of Persia to name a few! We spent a couple hours exploring this ancient city and stopped for lunch in the nearby village before heading on our way again. This was also the point where I switched to the three day tour group.
Over the coming hours we passed through several towns and villages. This is where the eye opening experience I had mentioned earlier comes in. Driving through these settlements you see very little. Houses are falling apart, stores seem to be closed up. There really is nothing here for career prospects or even a decent way of life compared to what we are used to back home and yet looking around everyone just seemed so happy. Children played in the streets, neighbors were out talking to each other and the people just seemed genuinely happy despite having very little. It’s something I really took to heart because back home people who have much more than these people in terms of possessions and life prospects are not as happy and it really makes you realize we should all be a lot more appreciative of what we do have and just enjoy life.
Just before sunset we made it to the entrance of the Dades Gorge for some unreal views as the sun set over the valley ahead. We headed in to the gorge where we would be spending the night in a local hotel. It was quite funny driving through the village to the hotel. Our driver was telling us this is his village where he was born and raised and then all of a sudden he says “Hey! There’s my mom!” and we all wave to her as we drive by. As for the hotel, it was quite nice. They served great food for dinner and there was a nice common area where we all gathered to eat and get to know one another.
The next morning we woke early again, had some breakfast and were on our way. We started by ascending to the top of the gorge for some great early morning views over the gorge. We passed through several more small towns and villages before arriving in the city of Erfoud, an oasis in the desert. We stopped here for a couple hours for a guided tour around the oasis learning about the history and culture of the area. Then we headed over to a local shop that makes and exports Berber rugs all by hand. The Berber rug is a popular Moroccan export and they are famous the world over for their quality and intricate designs.
After the visit to Erfoud we continued on to the town of Merzouga. This was the base from where we would be entering the Sahara Desert. Arriving just outside Merzouga and the surrounding landscape was getting pretty surreal. Giant dunes of sand towered in the distance as we looked ahead on to what is the beginning of the fabled Sahara. Hearing about the Sahara growing up has always fascinating and finally being here was something so incredible, words can’t describe the feeling.
Out driver pulled up to a small settlement outside the city where there was a group of camels waiting to take us to our camp out in the desert. this was not my first camel ride but every time is definitely a fun experience! We saddled up and were on our way in to the desert as the sun began to set providing a beautiful golden glow over the desert around us. After about 30 minutes of riding we arrived to the nomad camp where we would be spending the night. We made it just in time for the final sunset and hurried to the top of a giant nearby sand dune. it took about 15 minutes to climb this dune and was incredibly hard but the views from the top more than made up for it. Standing at the top of one a dune surrounded by the Sahara Desert on all sides and the sun setting over the sand was an experience i’ll never forget.
Heading back down to our camp, we settled in to our tents and then it was time for dinner. There was a tagine dinner served in the communal tent of the camp. We all sat on the sand around 3 makeshift “tables” where they served three giant dishes of tagine. There were no plates, only a fork and knife were given and we all ate out of the same dish. When in Morocco right!? After dinner we spent the rest of the evening outside gathered in a circle where the locals with us played Moroccan music and danced around. Staring up at the sky full of stars and the silhouettes of the towering dunes surrounding us, I was so humbled to be there and experience this.
The next morning we woke before sunrise. It was about 4:00AM and being in the desert it was FREEZING! We all stood around shivering as the guides saddled up the camels and we started to ride back towards Merzouga as the sun rose over the desert providing more beautiful scenery.
For the rest of the group, they would spend today driving back to Marrakesh. However I needed to get to Fes. So, the driver stopped at a bus station in the desert, in the middle of nowhere and told me there is a bus that goes from here to Fes. I left the group and waited for about an hour when the bus left and I was on my way to Fes. It was an 11 hour bus ride from this desert bus station to Fes and definitely an interesting experience. This wasn’t some nice coach bus, it was a crappy, run down, local bus. This meant no toilet, no heating and no AC and the bus became VERY crowded as people continually packed in sitting and standing in the aisles as the seats filled up.
The lack of AC and heating quickly became an issue as the day progressed. We started the bus journey in the desert. In the afternoon it got unbearably hot on the bus that even the slightest breeze felt amazing. Then as evening rolled around we were in to the High Atlas mountains where it was freezing and to my surprise we were actually in a snowstorm for a while. Now I was sitting there toes and fingers frozen just hoping we’d soon be down off the high altitude mountains to a little warmer weather.
Finally we made it to the outskirts of Fes. We were about half an hour from the final stop at the bus station in Fes when the bus broke down. The driver told us to just get a taxi and find out own way. Getting off the bus, cold and confused, I looked around and saw a French couple who seemed just as lost. We crossed the road to hail a taxi and ended up getting one together to share costs. This worked out great because the taxi driver only spoke Arabic and some French (French is one of the languages in Morocco. I know, I was surprised too!). being that the couple was French as well, it worked out great as they explained to the taxi driver where I needed to go.
Finally about 9:30PM I made it to the Funky Fes hostel. I went to grab some dinner, have a shower and head to bed after such a long tiring day on that bus. I got up early the next day to tour around Fes before my flight in the evening. Went on a great walking tour organized by the hostel and got to see a lot of the highlights of this large city. Personally, I liked Fes a lot more than Marrakesh.
Some of the things I recommend doing in Fes includes:
- Medina of Fes
- Walking tour
- Attarin Medersa (included in my walking tour)
- Moulay Abdellah Quarter (this is a MUST! But beware the smell )
- Chouara Tannery (again another MUST!)
- Markets! There are a ton of markets in Fes. Just roam around and explore all that the Moroccan culture has to offer. Warning, there are some weird/gross things in these markets 🙂
Later that day I made it to the airport and I was off, on my way to Paris next! One funny sidenote is that there are a ton of cats in Morocco and even in the airport I had gone through security and was sitting at my gate when low and behold there is even a cat here sitting under my seat!!! How did the cat get through security I wondered!!!??? It’s a mystery i’ll never know.